The LM386 Voltage Audio Power Amplifier by National Semiconductor and also manufactured by JRC/NJM, is an old chip (mid 70’s) that has been a popular choice for low-power audio applications. The gain-frequency curve can be shaped with some external feedback components, so it is a very flexible device. There is plenty of examples of clever circuits that people have come up with over the years.
Due to its low quiescent current drain and power consumption, it is suitable for portable battery-powered guitar mini amplifiers. Some of the best known are:
- Smokey Amp, the smallest and least expensive. Uses only 2 components and it is able to fit in a cigarette package.
- Little Gem, an enhanced version of Smokey Amp, adding new features and a gain/volume control.
- Ruby Amp, adds an input buffer to the Little Gem and renew some of the previous Little Gem ideas.
- Noisy Cricket, based on the Ruby amp, with gain/volume/tone controls, gives all capabilities of a guitar amp for a little money.
Table of Contents:
The voltage gain can be adjusted from 20 to 200 (26 to 46 dB) with a wide supply voltage range: 4V-12V or 5V-18V. There are three models: LM386N-1, LM386N-3, and LM386N-4, which can provide 0.3W, 0.5W and 0.7W respectively.
|Chip Name||Min VolT.||Max Volt.||Min. Out Power||Typ. Out Power|
|LM386N-1||4 Volts||12 Volts||250 mW||325 mW|
|LM386N-3||4 Volts||12 Volts||500 mW||700 mW|
|LM386N-4||5 Volts||18 Volts||700 mW||1000 mW|
The inputs are ground referenced while the output automatically biases to one-half the supply voltage. It has a low quiescent current drain: 4mA (24 mW when operating from a 6 volt supply) and "low" harmonic distortion: up to 0.2% (AV = 20, VS = 6V, RL = 8Ω, PO = 125mW, f = 1KHz) with a worst case of 10%THD.
The internal circuit is based on a classic power amplifier configuration typically referred as Lin Topology. Although old, it remained nearly unbeatable and almost all solid-state power amplifiers follow it.
The Input Stage: is used for several functions; to define the DC operating points, to set the input impedance and the most important of them is subtracting the feedback signal from the input path. The most common input stage topology today is undoubtedly the differential amplifier, also known as a long-tailed pair or LTP.
The Voltage Amplifier Stage (VAS): the high gain voltage amplifier stage is the core of the power amplifier. Its job is to amplify the low amplitude input signal to a suitable level. Most VAS circuits work in class-A mode since they basically require only a small amount of current, and therefore power losses over the active device can be retained reasonably small. A basic VAS circuit is a common emitter amplifier.
The Output Stage (OPS): is a current amplifier working in either class-A, class-B or class-AB mode. The function of the output stage is to provide enough current gain so that voltage potential provided by VAS can exist over the low load impedance.
The simplest current amplifier is an emitter follower.
Combining two complementary transistors the emitter followers can be connected in a push-pull configuration where each transistor amplifies the current of its corresponding half wave. Such topology is known as class-B amplifier, very efficient but subject to crossover distortion.
A typical configuration is to directly couple the bases of the output transistors to the collector of the VAS, thus the transistors do not require individual biasing.
The Feedback Network: its task is to send in some form the output signal to the VAS, thus it has an important part in error correcting as well as in bandwidth and gain limiting. Feedback can be either local, global or a mixture of both. Feedbacking from output to VAS (or more often to the input stage preceding it), is used to limit the gain and set the DC operating points.
There is some local Miller compensation feedback from the VAS transistor’s collector to its base, this to limit the bandwidth, to improve stability and to improve linearity at higher frequencies.
Following the Lin Topology, the LM386 internal circuit can be divided into Input Stage, Voltage Amplifier Stage (VAS), output stage (OPS) and Feedback network:
The first block is a PNP Emitter Follower amplifier (Q1, Q3), it sets the input impedance and defines the DC operation points, raising the input voltages off the ground so the circuit will accept negative input signal down to -0.4 V.
Both 50k input resistors (R1, R3) create the path to ground of the base current, the input needs to be coupled so not to disturb the internal biasing, hence the input impedance is dominated by these resistors and set to 50K.
Voltage Gain Analysis:
The differential amplifier Long Tailed Pair (Q2, Q4) gain is adjusted by two gain-setting resistors 1.35K + 150Ω (R5 + R5). External pins 1 and 8 provide access to adjust the gain from 20 to 200.
The voltage Gain can be calculated under quiescent conditions (no input signal applied) as follows:
- The voltage across R4 and R5 (Vdiff) is simply the differential input voltage (Vin) because the base-emitter voltage drops in the PNP transistors (Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4) are the same in each side of the LTP.
- The current mirror formed by Q5 and Q6 generates equal currents in both sides of the LTP. This current is called "i".
Due to the current mirror, the current intensity through R8 is equal to 2i, neglecting the current (i7) through the two 15K resistors (R6, R7), which are large impedances compared to other ports of the circuit, thereby:
In the figure above, is easy to see that if i7=0 then:
This formula can also be rewritten in a more generic way as:
Where Z1-5 and Z1-8 are the impedances between the respective pins.
Without any external components, it has a gain of Gv = 2x15K/(150+1350) = 20 (26 dB).
With a capacitor (or shortcutting) between pins 1 and 8 , it has a gain of Gv = 2x15K/150 =200 (46dB).
The common emitter amplifier (Q7) amplifies the low amplitude input signal to a suitable level directly coupled to the output stage
It is a class AB power amplifier, that is to say, a push-pull configuration where each transistor amplifies its corresponding half wave.
Because of the poor gain of the PNP transistors, Q9 and Q10 are in a “compound PNP transistor” configuration where βTOTAL = βQ9 x βQ10
In order to compensate the crossover distortion, the diodes D1 and D2 are used:
In Push-Pull topology, as a matter of fact, the transistors do not start conducting until the input signal begins to exceed their forward voltage, which is the voltage over the base-emitter junction. It is typically around ± 0.6 V.
Counteract is to bias the transistors so that their idling voltage never drops below the forward voltage. A specific amount of current, known as bias current, is constantly fed to the transistors’ bases in order to ensure that the transistors keep conducting for a desired amount of time (sacrificing efficiency).
Using a diode proved to be one of the best solutions: It offers a voltage drop which is temperature dependent and by matching the thermal coefficiency with the transistor the bias current can be kept quite stable. If an accurate thermal tracking is required the diodes are mounted to the same heatsink as power transistors. Since one diode usually is not enough, amplifiers often use several diode junctions, two in this case.
Negative feedback is applied from the output to the emitter Q4 via resistor R8. This DC feedback acts to stabilize the output DC bias voltage to one-half the supply voltage.
Qualitatively, the dc feedback functions as follows: If for some reason Vo increases, a corresponding current increment will flow through R8 and into the emitter of Q4. Thus the collector current of Q4 increases, resulting in a positive increment in the voltage at the base of Q7. This, causes the collector current of Q7 to increase, thus bringing down the voltage at the base of Q7 and hence Vo.
Another function of the feedback stage is to set the output offset voltage.
Why Vout = Vcc/2 ?
The output automatically biases to one half the supply voltage, this is how it happens:
Realize that quiescent conditions (no input signal applied), from the image below, is easy to see that Vbe1=Vbe3 and Vbe2=Vbe4, so the voltage in the Va node is exactly the same as in Vb, forcing Idiff = 0.
And now there are 2 approaches to get the same conclusion:
The current mirror (Q5, Q6) balances the LTP, equalizing the current through both transistors (Q2, Q4) and improving the linearity of the input stage. Therefore, the current on both tails are equal: both DC and AC components.
Since the currents "I" in the emitters of Q2 and Q4 are the same:
Because of the symmetry of the circuit, Vout = V7 ("Bypass" pin), making
Idiff=0 because V1 and V2 are at the same potential V1=V2
Due to the current mirror IQ2=IQ4
With Veb2= Veb4, Veb1=Veb3 and R6=R7=R8=15K:
Looking at the LM386 Voltage Gain vs Frequency datasheet graph, the frequency response is flat in the audible region up to 20KHz. Supplementary external components can be connected to tailor the response for specific applications.
In this point is specially interesting to modify the feedback loop between pins 5 and 1 that can be exploited for bass boost, and the more familiar feedback loop between pins 8 and 1 can also be modified to use different capacitor/resistor feedback combinations in parallel to yield differential gain for different frequency ranges.
The LM386 application data mentions a bass boost by connecting an RC network between pins 1 and 5 (paralleling the internal 15k resistor):
The amplifier is stable only for closed-loop gains greater than 9, so if the external resistor R is too small, the circuit could oscillate. Thereby, the minimum R can be calculated easily:
- If pin 8 is open: Rmin=10k, calculated as:
- If pins 1 -8 are bypassed: Rmin=2K, calculated as:
For a 6 dB effective bass boost, the datasheet suggests R=10K and C=33nF between pins 1 and 5 with pin 8 open, another common set of values used are R=2K2 and R=4.7nF. Actually, this modification did not provide an active boost, just a roll-off at frequencies over the selected frequency, that is it a low pass filter.
This mod can successfully compensate a poor speaker bass response and filter the hiss noise, but in the other hand if the circuit has a gain pot between pins 1 and 8 as Little Gem, Ruby Amp and Noisy Cricket do, the cut frequency will be modified with the gain value, making unfortunately the bass boost gain dependent.
The effect of the bass boost RC network can be analyzed with the voltage gain equation above by inserting R + 1/jωC impedances in parallel to the internal Z1-5 feedback resistor.
So fc can be calculated:
So, assuming that the Z1-5 internal resistance is 15K, the value of fc for the most common RC values can be calculated as follows:
- Using R=10K and C=33nF → fc= 1/2π x 33nF x (15K+10K)=192,2 Hz
- Using R=2,2K and C=4,7nF→ fc= 1/2π x 4.7nF x (15K+2,2K)=1968,7 Hz
JRC386 Datasheet from (New) Japan Radio Co. JRC/NJM.
Teemuk Kyttala Solid State Guitar Amplifiers from (New) Japan Radio Co. JRC/NJM.
LM386 Datasheet from National Semiconductor.
LM38X Lecture by South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
Stephan Großklaß LM386 Study.
Elliott Sound Products Study of Current Mirror Sources.
Thanks for reading, all feedback is appreciated